Roger Corman may be better known for pulpy B-movies but his work adapting Edgar Allen Poe for the big screen is uncharacteristically layered and has a depth that far outstrips films of a far more serious ilk. Almost all his Poe adaptations (excluding the fun but overall light The Raven) take Poe’s original structure for stories and adds questioning elements to them, largely built around philosophical problems and ideas. Richard Matheson, who adapted the screenplays for most of these films, must surely have had a hand in this; pushing Corman’s work beyond a typical B grade horror picture and into something else entirely. There’s no doubt that Poe’s work in its original form reflects the psychological torment of the human condition and goes against a number of the themes of the romantic era he was writing in but, as this essay seeks to show, even taking apart one of the Poe films using philosophical arguments presents a wealth of readings, questions and parallels.
The Kierkegaard Excess and the Sensuous Experience of Prospero.
The Masque of the Red Death (1964) is Corman’s most complex Poe film, not just for what is hiding beneath its colourful surface but also because its evil is decidedly ambiguous, even fooling Prospero himself as well as the audience. The story concerns this evil tyrant played with delicious zeal by Vincent Price. Prospero is a rich noble, letting the locals work on his land in return for complete control over them. He is intelligent, sadistic and determined to build a church for Satan to whom he serves in all of his actions. When riding through the village to invite the peasants to be subjects at his masque, he discovers two things; the character of Francesca (Jane Asher) and the presence of the Red Death.
Fleeing the disease, he heads to his castle with the intention of sitting it out while indulging in excessive debauchery. Several sub-plots occur, some of which are relevant to the philosophical reading of the film, others which are merely entertainment for Prospero and the viewer. The main crux of reasoning in the film’s philosophy is that Prospero evokes the regression in his subjects deliberately to reach new levels of aesthetic comfort and sensorial/sensual pleasure. This is how the film ties in to one particular theory by Søren Kierkegaard; that of the aesthetic phase of life.
Kierkegaard’s controversial theory of measuring the existential life through cultural means (as well as religious ones) meant the aesthetic principle was probably considered almost offensive at the time. Kierkegaard ties the aesthetic phase of life with the folly of youth, predicting it to happen when a person is in need of purely escapist and aesthetic based ideals, usually when they are young (though not solely). At the time of his writing Romanticism of all forms was in full flow so a criticism based around the purely beautiful, the aesthetically comfortable and almost excessive self-awareness was bound to attract criticism.
Corman’s film can be seen to present characters whose actions are defined by an increased length in this aesthetic stage. The characters of the film who are in power have yet to progress any further in their existential development meaning they are stuck in the lavish fantasy world away from the harsh reality of the peasant toil which, though never seen in the film, is explicitly shown through the contrast between Prospero’s attire and decoration and Francesca’s family’s rags and huts. This is one of Kierkegaard’s fears and though Prospero and his noble friends could hardly be called romanticists, their need to enact these rights (for whatever needs) place them firmly and solidly in a perpetual aesthetic stage.
Corman’s use for lavish, excessive fabrics, colour and sets all work extremely well for examining Poe’s story as a Kierkegaardian hell. This however was the main point of the philosopher who didn’t want to abandon aesthetics entirely in religion but saw them as a distraction with potentially damaging motifs. How fitting then that this excess is present specifically for the worship of the devil or the Lord of Flies of Price takes glee in stating. And yet, by Kierkegaard’s reasoning, the characters have simultaneously reached the final stage of existentialist growth (Religion) by explicitly sticking to the first and by-passing the second (Ethics). While his logic fits well for the moral Christian, it is this pathway presented in Corman’s film that is the way of evil, the way the pagan and the way of worshipper of the Devil.
Languishing in this heightened aesthetic realm, the characters in power begin to behave oddly. The excess of their isolation means they take pleasure from regressing as shown in a number of scenes throughout the film. In an early social occasion before the main masque, Prospero has his guests begin to act as whatever animal he so wishes. This screams of sadism, control and regression, allowing the rich guests to act out primal, unknowing urges that are hinted at already being on the cusp of manifesting. In another scene, Prospero’s underling Alfredo (Patrick Macgee) is convinced by the dwarf jester to dress as an ape to go to the masque.
Though this is a plot to get revenge on the man that hit his wife, it is sold to the character through promises of how regression to an animal state will win over many of the women at the ball. He pays dearly for his Freudian desire (he desperately wants to protect his ego but is instead subjected to the most painful and humiliating of deaths) and, in the context of the aesthetic stage, can be seen as a product of it despite obvious ties to Freudian arguments.